Filmmakers and screenwriters will always be faced with the same challenge for every film: How, when, and where should the film start? One method in a screenwriter’s toolbox when beginning their script is by commencing the story in medias res. But what does in medias res mean, and how is it used? Read more to find out, and maybe you’ll consider starting your next film in medias res!
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Define In Medias Res
What does in medias res mean?
Before we get into how the term is used in film, you’re likely wondering, “what does in medias res mean?” So, let’s start with the in medias res definition. After we define it, you’ll know how it can be employed in your own screenplay.
IN MEDIAS RES DEFINITION
What is in medias res?
The “in medias res” meaning is Latin and literally translates to “into the middle of things,” or “in the midst of things.” A literary device, “in medias res” essentially refers to plot, even going as far back as Shakespeare and Homer, and is used to open the story. A story that begins in medias res starts in the midst of a critical moment. This could be a major, pivotal “plot point,” or an incident, episode or event that hooks the audience into the action and twists it around in a different direction.
Why Start a Story in the Middle?
- Engages the audience immediately
- Promotes curiosity to discover the answers
- Leaves the audience wanting more
Benefits of Starting in the Middle
Reasons why we begin in medias res
Starting a film in medias res — or in the midst of things — can be intrinsically chaotic for the characters in the story. This causes the audience to be thrown into the chaos from the get-go, as well. Beginning a film in medias res enables the filmmaker to capture the audience’s attention in a dramatic and sometimes intense, emotionally-charged fashion. Ideally, this foments an engrossing sensation for the audience that makes them curious and wanting to see how the rest of the film unfolds.
Additionally, using the technique often provokes the question: how did the character(s) get here? Depending on how it’s used, the filmmaker can then fill in the gaps of the backstory so they can discover the chain of events that led the character(s) to that point.
What Movies Use This Technique?
In medias res examples in film
We’ve all seen films that start in medias res, even if we weren’t consciously aware. A classic trope that we may be used to hearing by now is the opening line of a movie or even a TV series: “My name is (fill in the blank). You’re probably wondering how I got here.” But many films eschew this trope and begin with simple lines of dialogue, heated action, or both.
There can be at least three different ways one can utilize in medias res in their film’s opening scene. The “traditional route” in which we’re launched straight into an intense action, suspense, or dramatic sequence, serving as the beginning of the story.
The “surprise route” in which we discover the opening scene is actually the middle of the story before the film circles back to the beginning. And finally, the “narrator-driven” route during which the film’s narrator guides the audience through the middle of the action before bringing us back to the beginning of the story.
One of the most epic opening scenes of any film can be found in Saving Private Ryan, a 1998 World War II war movie that begins in medias res. While it technically starts with a short dramatic scene in a cemetery, its true beginning is the pandemonium-laden invasion on Omaha Beach, which is so chaotic and violent it’s actually hard to watch.
This is why it’s one of the best in medias res examples — it immediately throws the audience right into the action. It serves as the beginning of the story itself and setting up the audience for one hell of a ride with overwhelming havoc.
We can find another great example in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. The very first scene begins with pretty standard establishing shots of Budapest. Suddenly, a man bursts onto a rooftop being chased by anonymous thugs with guns. The man leaps off the building, dispatches his pursuers and seems to have made a clean escape. But then he turns the wrong corner and encounters the wrong assassin.
Not only do we get a burst of high-octane action, a number of questions are born. Who is this man? What are the documents he apparently stole? And what does it mean that he lost those documents to this mysterious assassin? Like all great in medias res examples, we're hooked and eager for the answers.
SURPRISE IN MEDIAS RES EXAMPLES
Forrest Gump, American Beauty
“Momma always said life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get.” So goes one of the most famous lines in American cinema.
You’re likely familiar with this opening scene, but what you may not have realized is that it begins in medias res. Sure, Forrest Gump doesn’t begin with action, suspense or drama. But it does plant the audience in the middle of the story — or in this case, technically the end.
Forrest is sitting on a bus stop bench, talking to a woman who appears wholly uninterested in anything he’s saying. As he rambles on, it turns out he’s about to begin telling a story. We the audience are then brought to the beginning of it, seeing how his life unfolded and how he ended up here on this park bench.
It’s a great and unique use of in medias res, and it’s impossible to imagine how Forrest Gump could have begun any other way.
Another film that consummately employs the in medias res method is American Beauty. The film begins with a camcorder-style recording of a teenage girl lying in bed, lamenting about her father. After she says, “Someone really should just put him out of his misery.”
The person recording responds, “You want me to kill him for you?” to which she responds with, “Yeah, would you?” In the next scene, we learn a little about Lester Burnham via Kevin Spacey’s voice-over monologue: he’s 42 years old, and in less than a year he’ll be dead.
Of course, if the filmmakers’ tactic works, the audience will connect Lester’s death to the teenage girl’s words. In addition, the audience will be sufficiently engaged, curious, and eager to put the puzzle together by the end.
How does Lester die? Does someone kill him? Why does this girl hate her dad? Who is recording her, and what’s their relationship like? Is she serious about killing her dad? These are just some of the questions the audience will have that they’ll want answered as they watch the movie.
NARRATOR-DRIVEN IN MEDIAS RES EXAMPLES
Fight Club, Zombieland
One of the best in medias res examples of narrator-driven use is in Fight Club. After the opening credits roll, the film transitions into the perspective of someone holding a gun. The rear sight of a pistol comes into focus, and a rack focus then reveals the Narrator’s (Edward Norton) sweating face. His eyes are wide as he breaks the fourth wall and stares down the barrel of the gun in his mouth. “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden,” he says in a voice over, and the scene continues.
This of course captures the audience’s attention (and in quite dramatic fashion) and prompts a multitude of questions: Why is this happening? Is he going to escape? Is he a good guy, or a villain?
And yes, the most important questions: how did this man get here, and what’s going to happen next?
Zombieland is similar, although as an action-comedy, it’s of course much less serious in tone. The film opens in a ruinous urban landscape, with cars ablaze and turned upside down as the narrator tells us, “This is the United States of Zombieland.” This leads to what’s essentially a montage demonstrating the pandemonium of “Zombieland” as the narrator lists rules for survival.
The montage — rife with chaos and violence like Saving Private Ryan — gives us backstory as to how the character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), got to where he is. By illustrating all the events through the use of montage in medias res, we can see what led to Columbus’s current state.
Beginning a film in medias res is an effective method to immediately engage the audience. It’s been used by famous authors and directors from Shakespeare and Homer to Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. Now that you know the in medias res meaning, consider capturing your audience’s attention by starting your next script in the midst of things!
How to End a Screenplay
While this article may have given you an idea as to how to begin a screenplay using in medias res, read more about how you can end a screenplay. In this post, we use Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Big Short to expound on basic formatting examples, as well as technical aspects of writing THE END in scripts. By the end, you’ll have a strong grasp on the formatting requirements of how to end a screenplay.